Happy 2014! The beginning of this year marks 5 years since I left my cushy product job at the GOOG.
Although it sounds like a long time, these past 5 years have zoomed by super quickly. I’ve grown and changed a lot over the last few years. I’ve learned a lot of things that are important in building a company. It can be easy to get overwhelmed with all the things that you need to do or need to figure out.
But, after 5 years, if you simplify all those things that matter in building a company, it actually only comes down to 3 things. Here are the only 3 things that ultimately matter in building a startup:
1) Morale is king. (for you, your family, your teammates, your teammates’ family, your dog)
A lot of people think cash is king in business. This is largely true. Money makes your life more comfortable. It makes it easier to recruit. But money isn’t what keeps you or your team going. In fact, just because you have cash doesn’t mean that your company will survive.
In the first year of my startup adventure, my now failed company Parrotview was on the verge of signing a five figure deal with a Fortune 1000 company. This would bring money in the door to build our product and pay everyone on our team who had gone so long without pay. But, instead, we fell apart. My teammates were just no longer excited about the business anymore. Money didn’t matter. Morale is king.
img credit: aliwest44
The flip side is also true. When Jennifer, my now co-founder, and I first started working on side projects together in my second year after leaving Google, we had no money. In fact, to get some money in the door, we did random odd and end things. One time, we had researchers follow us around for two days as part of a scientific study that we got paid for. I also categorized whiskeys in Excel as a side gig. (I knew nothing about whiskey at the time.) We barely made ends meet by dipping into our savings. But, morale was immensely high.
I’m so excited about Shiny Orb and jquery -Jennifer (10/13/09)
But, morale is not just about your own morale or your co-founder’s morale. It’s also about your spouse’s morale. And your family’s morale. And your co-founder’s spouse’s morale. And your team’s morale. You need to do everything you can to keep everyone around you (and everyone important to those people) excited about the opportunity you’re pursuing. In running a startup, everyone goes through difficult times. There are so many ups and downs, and while there may be a lot of pressure on you as the CEO or a co-founder, your whole team and the people important to them are also with you on the startup roller coaster — not just you.
There have been times where we’ve lost a team member, because his/her family member didn’t think that working with us was the best idea. In those cases, I didn’t do a good enough job trying to keep morale up with everyone who mattered. I wish I could quantify morale, because morale is the most overlooked metric in startupland, but is the most important.
2) It takes a village.
This brings me to my next point. Starting a company is a lot easier when you have a village of support. Your village could be your family. It could be your friends. It could be your professional network.
img credit: Ramon Cahenzil
Honestly, LaunchBit only runs because of our village. It’s true. As much as I want to pat myself on the back for all the hard work I’ve done, I know that we’re nothing without our village.
In the very beginning, when we had no money, my parents took me back under their roof. When I still had no income, my husband, on his post-doc salary, made our household work. When Jennifer gave birth to her now two-year old, her parents took care of her son so that she could work. And, then after that, Jennifer’s husband Tim took over. My friend Vidya once helped me make a demo video. Hell, she also volunteered her other friend Vidya to help us with some of our code for one of our initial projects. And, she even introduced us to a couple of our investors. My friend Albert consulted for us every week for quite a while. There is a long list of friends and family who have helped us tremendously in some capacity for free over the years. Everyday, I’m thankful for our village.
3) There’s no silver bullet — just persistence, tenacity, and grit.
The tech media often highlights overnight-success companies. There are certainly a handful of these kinds of companies that exist. But the vast majority of them, including the ones who are highlighted as overnight successes in the press — such as GoPro, Pinterest, Pandora, and Rovio — are just plain and simply successful after years of uncelebrated hard work.
img credit: ljm2007
There’s no silver bullet. You solve one problem, and another one crops up. You earn revenue from one partnership, and then you have to form another one to grow your sales. You find one customer acquisition strategy that works really well, but then it saturates, and then you have to find a new channel.
Building a startup is hard. There are always problems every step of the way. I used to think, “if we only hit ABC milestone or raise XYZ money or hired QED people, we’d be set.” But, after 5 years, you realize that you go and conquer those things, and you have a whole new set of problems and milestones that you need to tackle next. You have more teammates to worry about. Bigger challenges. Bigger customers. More money, more problems. It doesn’t get easier — it actually gets harder.
But, don’t get me wrong. This isn’t to say that you should be down in the dumps. But, it does mean that you should enjoy the journey of tackling difficult challenges, because that journey doesn’t stop. Each mountain you climb with your startup can be immensely rewarding, because you know that it was a hard climb that you accomplished, a feeling that isn’t quite the same at a larger company.
There are a lot of things that are important in building a company. Preserve your capital. Invest in good people. Be scrappy. Validate your market. The list of good advice and important things to do goes on. But, keeping track of all these things is difficult to do. And, you won’t always do them correctly. I know that at LaunchBit, we’ve made a lot of mistakes and taken a lot of detours and wrong turns. There are times that have been tough. There are times when we’ve run out of money. Or we didn’t know what to do or where to go.
But, it’s ok. Time and again, if you can just do these three things: 1) keep morale high, 2) build a loyal village to support you, and 3) be tenacious, you’ll be just fine. I’m sure the next 5 years will present us with even greater challenges and even higher mountains to climb. I don’t know how to climb all of those right now. And we’ll probably take more detours and more wrong turns. But, I do know that if I can do just these 3 things, we’ll be all set.
Here’s to a good 2014 and may your journey be both challenging and fun.